Usage, abusage and cover ups
Winston Churchill once said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” But the shrewd political leader took little care to avoid plain speaking in other circumstance. Once at a dinner party in Virginia before World War II, he called, breast of chicken, well, “breast of chicken”. An American woman sitting next to him took umbrage and suggested he rephrase the term to “white meat”. The next day, the woman received a corsage with the message, “Pin this on your white meat.”
Churchill must have taken delight in his little act of nonconformity, but his off-colour joke is unlikely to go down well with society’s eternal love for euphemisms. Or “unmentionables”, which is also the title of American author Ralph Keyes’ latest — and sixteenth — book.
Keyes defines euphemisms as “words or phrases substituted for ones that make us uneasy” but have been evolved, suitably exploited and rendered defunct once they lost their “euphemistic status”. So, what makes this book different from the scores of others that have nothing more than an inventory of genteel vocabulary on offer? Unmentionables (titled Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms in the US) does more than just itemise euphemisms. Each chapter is replete with a set of taboo words, accompanied by the background against which they emerged. The anecdotal reminders about how euphemisms are a handiwork of the oversensitivities of different eras affirm the book’s theme: “Euphemisms are an accurate barometer of changing attitudes”.
Unease has always beset certain topics of discussion, and every era has a favourite. In Keyes’ words, “Euphemisms have gone from being a tool of the church to a form of gentility to an instrument of commercial, political and postmodern doublespeak.” So, if you were a primitive being, you would call a bear “grandfather” and a lion “the lord from the underworld”; early humans believed using the actual word for ominous entities like predators and evil spirits might invite trouble. In a later era, when fear of god and devil reigned supreme, Jesus Christ became “grease us twice”, Hell sought refuge in “hen” and if you didn’t follow these rules you would be “jim-jammed”, not damned.
With time, profanity lost its lustre as a subject of spiritual concern. Keyes observes that in the prelude to the Victorian Age, “fear of blasphemy gradually gave way to fear of impropriety”. Seeking cover behind euphemisms to avoid any allusion to “Victorian’s secrets” or simply, sex, body parts and secretions, became the norm. Should you sneeze, you would apologise for a “nose spasm”. And it wasn’t your leg that you hurt; it was your “limb”. Brides in Britain would have to “close their eyes and think of England”, if they were to engage in dutiful sex. And using “where the Queen goes alone” for, um, a toilet sums it all up.
Yet, it’s with a certain effort that you skim through three segments of extensive bawdy discourse and crud. Isn’t it about time Keyes’ cut to modern-day euphemisms? He does the needful. The portions dealing with death, medical terminology, money and war would strike a chord with readers, since today it’s with some concern that we refer to these subjects. In the unsentimental Middle Ages, there was little need for coining evasive terms for death; unlike today, when “casket” has replaced “coffin” and it’s the “funeral director” you look for, not an “undertaker”.
But hiding behind deceitful words to obscure the cruelty of war, terror acts and aggressive interrogation techniques is barely a revelation. Nor are warfare euphemisms exclusive to the West; Keyes chooses to stay within familiar territories of wars with Vietnam, Korea and Iraq. And the novelty of money matters and workplace jargon has long worn off. It is here that the book becomes a hasty compilation with little attempt to explain the subtext.
If you appreciated Keyes’ love for detailing in the chapter “Anatomy Class”, too much articulation in the section on “comestibles”, or edibles, will have you nauseous. He leaves little to the imagination when he talks about tails, intestines, feet, lungs and kidneys of beings that move, crawl and fly. These delicacies are simply termed “variety meats” by restaurant owners to reduce the shock value. However, what are we to make of renaming Chinese gooseberries “kiwi fruit” so that they sell better? That’s rebranding, not euphemising. This is included in the section on “the power of positive euphemising”, which is a bit removed from the tenor of the book.
Keyes confuses matters when he approves the use of slangs in a hip way to avoid referring to an embarrassing topic directly. How does replacing the word killing with “whacking” improve things? And the censorship technique of using asterisks hardly qualifies for euphemising.
However, Keyes has done well to introduce those who were brave enough to call a spade a spade. Take peg-legged Bill Veeck who insisted that he was crippled and not “disabled”. And Union general Tecumesh Sherman minced no words when it came to mentioning war. “The glory of war is all moonshine,” he once remarked.
Unmentionables is engaging as long as it keeps to euphemisms. The moment Keyes ventures into vague slang, jargon and self-bestowed sobriquet, the book loses sight of its selling point: to be more than and different from a collection of uneasy terms. Nonetheless, read it and you would probably find yourself secretly looking for possible dodges even in frank discourse, or devising some of your own.
— Shivam Saini / March 30, 2011